Reagan’s Block on Food Sales to Cuba, and Is Congress (Finally) Muting TV Marti?

Dear Friends:

When common sense isn’t so common in Washington, we thought these developments ought to be savored first.

This week, John Block, who served as Ronald Reagan’s agriculture secretary, made media calls to help reporters make the connection between increasing travel to Cuba and increasing the sale of U.S. food to the island.  Now that’s common sense.

This week, as well,  a key Senate Committee adopted the common sense point of view that funding TV Marti’s broadcasting operations to Cuba, whose signals are jammed, and whose audience is somewhere between speculative and non-existent, probably didn’t make much dollars or cents.  So it cut the TV Marti budget.  That’s common sense, too.

Finally, as we continue to follow developments in Honduras after the coup, a tried and tested peacemaker, President Oscar Arias, was appointed as a mediator.  President Obama also made the commonsensical observation that America cannot and should not seek to impose any system of government or any other country – and that means restoring President Zelaya, even though he has strongly opposed U.S. policy.  A veritable chorus of common sense!

As usual, other policy makers and politicians continue to astound and disappoint us all – the Members of Congress who are denying that a coup took place in Honduras; the Secretary of State, who continues to sound the backwards looking theme of conditionality; the guys at U.S. Treasury, who keep hammering firms with fines for violating the embargo, etc.

But hey, this isn’t paradise.  It’s the news summary!


Reagan’s Ag. Secretary calls for new Cuba policy

John Block, who served as Secretary of Agriculture under President Ronald Reagan, urged U.S. leaders to drop restrictions on American travel and food sales to Cuba in a conference call with reporters, the Florida Sun-Sentinel reported.

Block supports legislation to legalize travel by all Americans to Cuba, which he says is good policy and will stimulate additional sales to Cuba of agricultural commodities produced throughout the U.S.

“For years I’ve felt we should be doing business with Cuba,” Block told reporters on the call.

Block pointed out that U.S. producers sold grain to the Soviets during Reagan’s presidency and that the United States trades with China and Vietnam.

He predicted that with travel and financing restrictions lifted, U.S. food sales could quadruple from the current amount of $500 million a year to as much as $2 billion.

According to Block, attempts to isolate Cuba have failed “and it’s time to try a different policy.”

A transcript and audio file of the call and a video of Sec. Block’s opening statement to reporters can be found here.

Bye-Bye TV Marti?

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted Thursday to cut the $15 million in funding that the government provides for TV Marti, the U.S. television service that transmits programming to Cuba.  Senator Byron Dorgan offered an amendment and argued the funds were wasted since the signal is jammed, the Washington Post reported.  The amendment passed 17-13.

“TV Martí virtually has no audience in Cuba and has little relevance in the Cuban internal dialogue over the historic political transition that is taking place,” John Nichols, a professor of Communications at Pennsylvania State University, said in a Congressional hearing earlier this year. “The Congress and the new government should close down TV Martí as soon as they can,” he added.

Treasury fines Phillips Electronics for medical sales to Cuba

The U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) recently fined the Dutch company Phillips Electronics $128,750 for selling medical equipment to Cuba, the Cuban News Agency reported.

The fine was punishment for an employee of Philips Electronics of North America Corporation (PENAC), a subsidiary of the Dutch company, traveling to Cuba to sell medical equipment. The infraction reportedly occurred between June 2004 and March 2006, and Phillips has agreed to pay the fine. The medical equipment involved in the deal was produced in Brazil.

According to the Cuban News Agency, fines against companies and individuals for violating the embargo reached $2.06 million in 2008.

The column prompted Randy Alonso, chief commentator on Cuba’s daily Round Table news program, to accuse the Obama administration of making “no changes to the blockade (embargo).”

In an article on, Alonso wrote that the “United States continues to persecute any sale of medical equipment and medicine of U.S. origin to Cuba, in a true hunting that has brought about premature death and the deterioration of the quality of life of Cuban citizens.”

According to Alonso, “the blockade (embargo) continues in its suffocating form,” and he questions Obama: “where is the change when we talk about Cuba?”

New York Philharmonic to Cuba

The New York Philharmonic may soon perform in Havana, the New York Times reported. According to the orchestra’s spokesman, Eric Latzky, the group is considering an invitation from the Cuban government and Philharmonic officials are on their way to Cuba to look over logistics.

The three or four day visit would take place in October and include two concerts, said Latzky, just a few days after the orchestra returns from a performance in Vietnam.

In February 2008, the group performed in North Korea.

According to orchestra officials, the idea has been run past Vice President Biden’s office and the trip has strong U.S. government support.

“They said, ‘Absolutely, it’s a wonderful project and you should pursue it,'” Zarin Mehta, president of the orchestra, told the Times.

Secretary Clinton on Cuba

This week Secretary of State Hillary Clinton discussed the Obama administration’s policy toward Cuba and Venezuela in an interview with Leopoldo Castillo of Venezuela’s Globovision. Here are some excerpts:

QUESTION: The quote “freedom for Cuba and the Cuban people” (inaudible) a possibility for you under Castro political authority?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, as you know, we are engaged in discussions with the Government of Cuba about matters that we believe are important – migration, for example. But we have made it very clear that we could not do much more in dealing with Cuba unless Cuba changes. The political prisoners need to be released. Free and fair elections need to be held. I’ve always believed that if you think you’re doing a good job for people, then go out and try to persuade them to vote for you in an honest, free, and fair election. So we are opening up dialogue with Cuba, but we are very clear that we want to see some fundamental changes within the Cuban regime.

QUESTION: Finally, are we going to see a picture with President Obama and President Chavez at the Oval Office shortly? (Laughter.)

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, as you know, I think President Obama was quite surprised when he was given the book. But we’re trying to lower the temperature. We want to make it clear that there are ways for us to have a conversation with people we don’t agree with on many issues. We don’t want to see interference with other countries’ internal affairs. We want to see a vibrant democracy that reflects the very best that countries have to offer. We would like very much to see leaders being effective in helping to create greater economic opportunity for poor people.

You can read the full transcript here.


Brazil and Cuba sign deal to rebuild Mariel

Brazil will provide millions in credits to Cuba in order to rebuild the port of Mariel, well-known as the exit point in the 1980 exodus, the Reuters news agency reported.

Brazilian Industry and Trade Minister Miguel Jorge said $110 million of the $300 million credits had already been approved by the Brazilian government and approval of the rest would soon follow.

The port lies about 30 miles west of Havana and Cuba would like it to serve as the logistics center for all offshore drilling and to handle cargo shipments, including trade with the United States.

Jorge announced at a news conference that construction on highways and a railroad would begin “very soon,” Reuters reported. According to Brazilian officials, the port will be constructed in several phases, the first phase at a cost of $600 million, taking four or five years to complete. The entire project is estimated to cost up to $2 billion.

Brazilian officials also announced that Petrobras, Brazil’s state-owned oil company, will soon open an office in Havana.

According to Mexico’s La Jornada newspaper, agreements were also reached in the pharmaceutical sector where the two countries will enter into a joint venture to produce medicines under Cuban patents.

Raúl Castro’s economic policy

A terrific new report by Cuba expert Phil Peters, Raúlonomics: Tough Diagnosis and Partial Prescriptions in Raúl Castro’s Economic Policies, analyzes economic policy under Raúl Castro.

Peters argues that although Castro’s time in office has been marked by stark assessments of Cuba’s economic problems in official speeches and the state media,” aside from changes in the agriculture sector, “his policies to date seem decidedly inadequate to spur the across-the-board growth in employment, incomes, and output that is needed to solve the problems he has identified.”

According to Peters, Raúl Castro has made significant and promising reforms in the farm sector, but offered “relatively limited policy prescriptions” in other areas.

“If the pace of policy change remains slow, and if the emphasis remains on state-centered decisions and planning, Cuba’s stark inequality in workers’ purchasing power and its inability to generate well-paying jobs for its youth are likely to persist for the foreseeable future,” Peters concludes in the report.

Cuban oil exploration in the Gulf delayed again

Drilling for oil in Cuba’s untapped fields in the Gulf of Mexico has once again been postponed, diplomatic and industry sources told the Reuters news agency this week.

Earlier reports indicated that a consortium of foreign oil companies, led by Spain’s Repsol, would begin drilling in June or July, but those plans have now been delayed and the new start time is uncertain.

“The project has been postponed until a further date for more study. It is premature to say when drilling might begin, later this year or next,” said a foreign oil industry source with direct knowledge of the plans, Reuters reported.

Similarly, a European diplomat said he was sure that drilling was “postponed at least until the end of 2009, if not into 2010.”

Estimate of Cuba’s oil debt to Venezuela

An analyst at the University of Miami estimates that Cuba owes Venezuela $4.6 billion for oil, Bloomberg news reported.

According to energy expert Jorge Piñón, Cuba has bought oil and oil sub-products from Venezuela for $12.3 billion since 2003, 38 percent of which was secured through 25 year financing. Piñón’s numbers are based on market prices and statistics released by Cuba’s official statistics office last week, Bloomberg reported.


Group calls for release of jailed journalists

The International Press Institute called this week for the “immediate release” of 22 journalists jailed in Cuba and said that the U.N. Human Rights Council’s review of Cuba was not harsh enough, EFE reported.

IPI criticized the fact that the U.N. Human Rights Council commended Cuba for progress in promoting rights in nutrition, education and health, and did not come down hard enough on violations of freedom of expression.

“I am indeed glad to see that the report includes concerns about the lack of freedom of expression in Cuba, as well as recommendations to lift restrictions on this fundamental right. However, I feel that these concerns are not given enough visibility in a report that also extensively commends Cuba’s achievements in the field of social and economic rights, providing a relatively positive assessment of the general human rights situation in the country,” IPI Director David Dadge said, EFE reported.

The U.N. panel noted that in 2003, 79 people were arrested in an “arbitrary” manner, including 29 journalists, 21 of whom remain imprisoned, the IPI said.


We continue to monitor events in Honduras and throughout the Western Hemisphere as efforts continue to reverse the coup and restore the presidency of Mel Zelaya.


In Costa Rica, President Oscar Arias is serving as a mediator in the dispute, and has met separately with President Zelaya and Honduras’s de facto president, Roberto Micheletti. The New York Times published this editorial about his efforts and the on-going crisis.

Cuban educators return from Honduras

One hundred and forty-three Cubans who were working in sports and education programs in Honduras have returned to the island after accusations by the de facto government that they were involved “indoctrination” activities and organizing against the de facto government, Prensa Latina reported.

The education programs offered by Cuba in Honduras benefited more than 150,000 Hondurans, Prensa Latina reported. A memo released by the Cuban embassy in Tegucigalpa stated that “doctors and medical personnel will remain in the Republic of Honduras, taking into account that their assigned mission to protect health and save human lives in any situation is strictly humanitarian.”

Obama’s statement

Meanwhile, during his European trip, President Obama was asked about the coup in Honduras and made these comments that signal a departure from past U.S. practices, which caught our attention:

“America cannot and should not seek to impose any system of government on any other country, nor would we presume to choose which party or individual should run a country. And we haven’t always done what we should have on that front.

“Even as we meet here today, America supports now the restoration of the democratically elected president of Honduras, even though he has strongly opposed American policies.” — President Obama (July 7)

Coup? What coup?

Back in Washington, Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-NY), Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere held a special hearing today on the Crisis in Honduras.

With typical Washington partisan rancor, Subcommittee members clashed at the hearing over the definition of “military coup,” with some opponents of President Zelaya dismissing the role of the armed forces in expelling the Honduran president, and said since the country was under civilian control, military involvement was not sufficient to call what happened in Honduras a “military coup.”

Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, testified along with several others about the events surrounding the coup and its implications in the hemisphere. You can read her testimony here.

We will continue to track events surrounding the coup on the Honduras page on our website, which you can access here.


Representatives Delahunt and McGovern have introduced a House Resolution calling for the reinstatement of Manuel Zelaya as President of Honduras and for international observation of the November elections.

Please call your Member of Congress to encourage them to sign on to this legislation.

Please call the Capitol switchboard, 202.224.3121, to get connected to your Representative’s office and then ask to speak to the foreign policy aide.

The Message: I urge Representative ______________  to join in co-sponsoring the resolution introduced by Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-MA) and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) calling for Honduran President Manuel Zelaya to be returned to office.  The U.S. Congress should be loud and clear in condemning this military coup and supporting democracy and the rule of law in Honduras and all of Latin America.

Recommended Viewing:

Opening statement of Secretary John Block from media call on reforming U.S. Cuba policy and increasing food sales to Cuba.

Recommended Reading:

Our thirst for oil shouldn’t trump fairness as the major reason for ending embargo, by John B. Quigley

Oil is far from the only reason to end the trade embargo with Cuba. The embargo hurts us, while it has done little good for the people of Cuba. The Obama administration is, wisely, taking a hard look at our Cuba policy. It is time for a change.

Summer Reading:

Dan Erikson’s book, The Cuba Wars: Fidel Castro, the United States, and the Next Revolution, is a comprehensive and insightful book that was published at the perfect time. Erikson unravels the multiple arguments that swirl about Cuba between Cubans on both sides of the Straits of Florida and the governments in Washington and Havana. His original anecdotes and portraits make it an enjoyable and informative read.

“With this fresh, astute, and compassionate exploration of the past two decades of U.S.-Cuban relations, Erikson emerges as a valuable new voice in Washington foreign policy circles,” wrote Foreign Affairs magazine.

We strongly recommend that you check it out. You can order your copy here.

Until next week,

The Cuba Central Team

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